County commissioner districts to be reduced from 7 to 5.

November 3, 2021

The new district map for the County Board of Commissioners.

County commissioner districts to be reduced from 7 to 5.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

HART — The Oceana County Reapportionment Committee recently determined that the current format of seven county districts needs to be reduced to five.

“In attempting to resolve the issue of reapportionment, the statutory committee comprised of the Oceana County Clerk Amy Anderson, Oceana County Treasurer Mary Lou Phillips, Oceana County Republican Party Chair Andy Sebolt, Oceana County Democratic Chair Janet Schultz, and myself — the Oceana County prosecutor, the committee had decided it was in Oceana County’s best interest to keep all townships and municipalities intact and whole and not divide those units,” states Oceana County Prosecutor Joseph Bizon, who chairs Oceana County Reapportionment Committee, in an Oct. 8 letter. 

“We also had a desire to keep ‘like’ communities as connected as possible, utilizing existing township boundaries and school districts as a guide as much as possible. It became evident we could not keep a seven-commissioner board and retain the integrity of the townships as a whole. Ultimately, the committee decided that it was necessary to reduce the number of commissioners to five, as this was the only way to draw conforming districts without dividing townships.”

Oceana County has had a seven-member board for 40 years. Current county commissioners elected to two-year terms are Chair Robert Walker, Vice Chair Paul Erickson, Timothy Beggs, Martha Meyette, Ron Christians, Phil Morse and Craig Hardy. Each commissioner represents one district.

The current format for county commissioner districts.

Districts are divided as follows:

District 1: Christians, includes Pentwater, Weare and Crystal townships.

District 2: Meyette, Newfield and Greenwood townships.

District 3: Hardy, Hart Township and City of Hart.

District 4: Erickson, Colfax, Elbridge, Leavitt and Ferry townships.

District 5: Beggs, Benona, Claybanks and Golden townships.

District 6: Morse, Shelby Township except a portion of the Village of New Era.

District 7: Walker, includes Grant and Otto townships, a small portion of Shelby Township, and the Village of New Era.

Under the new plan, the five commission districts would be divided as follows:

District 1: Benona, Claybanks, Golden, and Pentwater townships. 

District 2: Ferry and Shelby townships.

District 3: Elbridge and Hart townships and the City of Hart. 

District 4: Colfax, Crystal, Leavitt, Newfield and Weare townships.

District 5: Grant, Greenwood and Otto townships.

The idea behind creating districts with more distinct boundaries is that it makes elections run much more smoothly. A similar situation is happening with state voting districts.

The county board unanimously approved a resolution formally opposing the plan. 

“The nature of county government has become more complex, involving more involvement and time of commissioners,” said said Oceana County Administrator Robert Sobie. Also, the number of internal and external committee appointments that commissioners handle, which is approximately 24 total, is another reason the board is against the plan. “They will have to be split up between five commissioners versus seven. Having a smaller board may make it easier for special interests to capture the board.”

The committee’s decision still must receive state approval before going forward. The commissioners’ resolution in opposition to the plan is symbolic and won’t change the plan that was submitted to the Secretary of State. 

“There hasn’t been any talk of filing any sort of court action from stopping the plan from moving forward,” he said.

“It can actually be less representation, because a commissioner now needs to engage a larger number of constituents versus a small number if you have more commissioners.

“… the Oceana County Board of Commissioners strongly opposes the plan submitted to the Secretary of State that reduces commissioner districts from seven to five, because it negatively impacts citizen representation when fewer elected officials are available to engage their constituents in matters of county government,” the resolution states.

“… that the complexities and workload of Oceana County government requires a minimum of seven county commissioners and by reducing the number of commissioners, those elected to the positions will have a greater concentration of duties and responsibilities assigned to them that includes more than 24 overall appointments to internal and external boards, commissions, and liaison positions…

“… a county board of commissioners with five members increases the likelihood that the board can be captured by special interests that would only need three members elected to the board to advance policies that may not be in the best interest of businesses, individuals, families, and visitors to our great county.”

Oceana County originally started out with five county commission districts,” said Oceana County Clerk Anderson in a written statement. “In 1981, the county apportionment commission voted to increase the number of county commission districts from five to seven because of the oversized districts. It was felt that the five county commissioners could not fairly represent the people of their district, and seven commissioners would be more appropriate. In 2021, the committee determined it was in the best interest to keep all township and municipalities intact and whole and divide those units. The committee also had a desire to keep ‘like’ communities as connected as possible, utilizing existing township boundaries and school districts as a guide as much as possible. Ultimately, the committee decided that it was necessary to reduce the number of commissions to five as this was the only way to draw conforming districts without dividing townships.”

The district change would take place at the next election in 2022. 

“Assuming all current commissioners are going to run again, there would be some internal competition between a couple of commissioners,” said Sobie.

“There may be a small savings to the budget by having five commissioners versus seven. However, because commissioners will be busier  — at least that’s the perception right now — maybe there would be more meeting per diem to pay or mileage — different things that might offset savings. I’m not anticipating much — if anything — as far as impact on the budget.”

State law requires that county reapportionment committees meet every 10 years after receiving US Census population data to determine districts, said Bizon. Committees, as required by statute, must be made up of the county prosecutor, county clerk, county treasurer and representatives of the two parties getting the most votes in the last election, which normally are the republican and democratic parties.

The committee met several times in open session to discuss the reapportionment, said Bizon. “Everyone wanted to keep seven commissioners. We had early hopes that we would be able to keep it the same. But the final numbers came in, and they were out of tolerance. If we kept it how they were, it was a non-conforming plan. And we could not keep it that way.

“The lines looked like somebody was drawing a jigsaw puzzle while drunk,” he said of the boundaries if a seven-district format would have been maintained. “The five-district format creates good lines. We wanted to keep townships intact. As we went along, the idea of having seven commissioners was completely unworkable.

“The entire committee took this very seriously,” said Bizon. “The decision to reduce commissioners was not taken lightly. It wasn’t what we wanted to do from the beginning, but it became necessary as we looked at what the maps would look like.” The committee examined increasing the number of commissioners, but that creates a “tremendous cost” to the county, he said. The idea of six commissioners was also quickly dismissed, because the board would be plagued with tie votes.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how the dynamic plays out over the next decade and what it means to the citizens of the county,” said Sobie.

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